Every year has great performances, but this year you’ll notice some themes. There were several films as a whole whose performances I couldn’t deny either. You’ll see that I favored 12 Years a Slave, Before Midnight, Captain Phillips and American Hustle. It’s no coincidence that most if not all of these movies will end up in my “Best Movies” post next week. Maybe my love for those movies is coloring my perception of the performances’ quality. Or is my love for those movies compounded by my love for the performances? I haven’t figured out which yet. But, regardless, I can say for certain that these are the year’s great performances.
You may also notice that the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscarwinners aren’t on my lists. It’s not because I didn’t like those performances- both McConaughey and Leto are great. But I liked the ten performances I chose better. It may be because I thought Dallas Buyers’ Club as a whole was a bland, misleading movie, so my perception of the performances is as bland, misleading performances. Who knows?
You’ll find links to clips of each actor’s performance in their name.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave (winner): 12 Years a Slave was never about just the one man. And I understand the arguments against Ejiofor, the same that could be used against Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump or Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button: they’re all passive, and the events of the movie just sort of happen around them. But there’s more to Ejiofor’s Solomon than that. Solomon’s spirit of survival is the fulcrum of the movie, and Ejiofor, alternating from fervent determination to desperate helplessness, embodies that spirit. He’s essential to 12 Years‘s success, and it will be remembered as an iconic performance.
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby: The Academy nominated Leo for his performance in The Wolf of Wall Street, but I haven’t seen that, and I won’t. Leo as Gatsby was enough Leo for me last year, but only because it might have been his best performance yet. That’s saying a lot after the career he has, but Gatsby is everything great about DiCaprio distilled into pure, honest desire.
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips: It was absolutely wrong that Hanks wasn’t nominated for the Oscar last year. Shaky Boston accent aside, no one gave a better performance that the one in the scene in that clip. As he tries to keep it together while uncontrollably falling apart as he comes out of his crisis- I don’t know how you do that as an actor.
Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight: Hawke has always been underrated as an actor. Not dashing enough to be a leading man, too boyish to play the straight man in comedies; it’s only been under the direction of Richard Linklater that he’s found much praise. Before Midnight gives us a glimpse of the piercing, knife-like wit and empathy we’ve been missing.
Joaquin Phoenix, Her: Phoenix has a totally thankless job to do as Theodore- he spends most of the movie just listening. But watch the clip in this link; as he listens to Samantha, the AI who is now Theodore’s girlfriend, you see him go from true excitement about her to mild embarrassment to quietly worried about the implications of what she says. Only someone who lives in his characters as much as Phoenix does could pull this off.
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight (winner): Maybe it’s not fair to choose a woman who has had three movies and a virtual lifetime to perfect her character, but Delpy makes fairness a moot point. There’s no way she could have played this version of Celine 9 years ago. The maturing and jading she’s endured over that time is evident both in the way her body has aged and in the way her conversation has almost lost its hopefulness. Both Jesse and Celine were old enough in Before Sunset to have become disillusioned. In Before Midnight, Delpy’s disillusionment is full and realized, but it’s the glimmers of hopefulness that stick with you.
Bérénice Bejo, The Past: You may recall Bejo from The Artist, but she’s in a much heavier role in The Past. She’s no less delightful though, just in a different way. The Past deals with broken relationships and suicide, so it’s not a walk in the park exactly, but Bejo’s performance lends the journey much-needed soul.
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine: This clip is the perfect example of Blanchett’s brilliance. She’s never condescending toward her character, treating her with the utmost seriousness. But she also makes sure the inherent ridiculousness isn’t lost; without her, Woody Allen’s dramedy would have been totally tone-deaf.
Sandra Bullock, Gravity: It should have been impossible to get noticed in a movie like Gravity. The actress Cuarón chose to fill the edges of his star-studded screen should have been expendable, easy to miss. But Cuarón chose Sandra Bullock, so all should-have-beens went out the window, and Bullock turned in a full performance that went beyond meer desperation into catharsis.
Brie Larson, Short Term 12: Compassion is a difficult emotion to convey without sinking into corny earnestness. Telling the story of a group home with troubled teens would be the perfect opportunity to fall into this trap. But Larson finds the precarious line between compassion and cheesiness, as her character tends to the kids’ bodies and hearts while struggling to be vulnerable with her own.
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave (winner): Fassbender isn’t doing himself any favors if he’s trying to make people like him. After breaking through with his charming English soldier in Inglourious Basterds, he’s really only played villains and/or despicable men. For reference, see his sex addict in Shame, his impersonal android in Prometheus, and this role, as a sadistic slavemaster. I have no desire to write about the kinds of things his character does in 12 Years a Slave; it makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about it, and I suspect this is part of why he didn’t win the Oscar- an Oscar for Fassbender must have felt like giving a prize to Master Epps. Epps isn’t evil though; it’s thanks to Fassbender’s performance that we know Epps is simply corrupted by his power. It’s also thanks to his performance that it’s hard to tell the difference.
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips: Many actors have portrayed the thankless role of the dark-skinned foreigner attacking the Americans. Most haven’t been given the opportunity to make that foreigner into a real person with relatable desires and flaws. Abdi benefits from a filmmaking crew that set out to make the kind of movie that does provide that opportunity, but he colors the role’s lines in so completely that you may forget who you’re rooting for.
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle: Bradley Cooper already showed us his comedic best as a leading man in Silver Lining Playbook, so it’s a delight to see him double down on neurosis with a character who seems confident and confidently unaware of his own compulsive nature. Cooper’s FBI agent is so inept, it’s no wonder (spoiler alert, sort of) the con artists win in the end. Cooper’s the kind of guy you know is going to lose, but it makes him all the more lovable.
Bruce Dern, Nebraska: Bruce Dern got the Best Actor nomination from the Academy, but Dern’s Woody really belongs in the Supporting category; Will Forte’s David is the real starring turn. But Dern is certainly worth singling out for praise. Woody doesn’t seem to be all there for the majority of the film, but Dern gives all his actions a certain matter-of-factness that is so characteristic of people “of a certain age”.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners: Hugh Jackman got all the attention for Prisoners, but his performance was overblown. Gyllenhaal paints the more fascinating portrait of a loner detective struggling to do his job among incompetent bureaucracy and desperate victims. In what turns out to be a disappointingly standard crime story, it’s Gyllenhaal’s cop that ends up being the emotional and moral center.
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave (winner): I don’t really take actors seriously when they talk about the ordeal they go through when they take on a hard role. If they complain about the conditions or the grind of the shoot, it never fazes me; I always think, well, you get paid to act, so I don’t feel bad for you. I don’t know that Nyong’o has ever made such comments about her experience shooting 12 Years a Slave, but I’d believe her. It’s dangerous to see this role, and by extension this movie, as IMPORTANT, because that misses the artistry involved and over time steals the film of its raw power. Beyond the importance of her role, Nyong’o is captivating as a her master’s favorite slave, which comes with more problems than that designation might suggest. But it is the most important performance of the year, and the best; and it’s not close.
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle: Jennifer Lawrence is the closest thing we have to a nuclear bombshell in Hollywood right now. The scene in the link shows the full gamut of how messed up her character is, but it also shows Lawrence’s full range as a dramatic and a comedic actress. I don’t know what’s going on with that accent, but it says a lot about how brilliant her performance is that I don’t care.
Emma Watson, The Bling Ring: I wanted to find a clip of a full scene of Emma Watson in this movie, but there aren’t any appropriate ones out there. Besides, the trailer gets the job done. It helps her case that she gets the best lines (For example: “I want to lead a country one day for all I know.”) and has the most outrageous character. Watson, after pulling off extremely earnest in 2012 with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, projects a different kind of earnestness, one mixed with a vapid lack of self-awareness, and she totally steals the movie.
Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels’ The Butler: Why isn’t Oprah in more movies? It’s almost a shame she’s had so much success with her own (Haha, or OWN! Man, I kill me…) brand, because it interferes with taking on great roles like this. The Butler is full of scenery chewing, which is part of its appeal, but Winfrey (and Whitaker, of course) gave it much-needed, deeply felt class.
Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now: Woodley has had quite the year, what with her movies about teenagers with cancer and unbelievable post-apocalyptic societies making bundles of money. And she’s given great performances before (see: The Descendants). But in The Spectacular Now Woodley plays a girl that doesn’t stand up for herself, a new trick for her, one that she totally pulls off and one that elevates the movie past its plot-driven faults.